KNOXVILLE — Dave Hart has been a busy man the last three months.
From sitting down with 60 of his staff members for individual one-hour meetings to a trip to Charleston, S.C., to watch Tennessee’s basketball team play Wednesday night, the Volunteers’ new vice chancellor and athletic director has begun to construct the foundation for his vision for the future of UT athletics.
Following a meeting with senior associate athletic director David Blackburn, one member of Hart’s leadership team, the former Florida State AD and second-in-command in Alabama’s athletic department sat down with a trio of reporters in his office inside the Brenda Lawson Athletic Center. First on the Thursday afternoon docket for Hart, wearing a festive Christmas tie, was an interview with the Times Free Press.
While the 26-minute interview covered a variety of topics from the unannounced 2012 football schedule for the now 14-team Southeastern Conference to women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt, most of it focused on the Vols’ football program. UT closed Derek Dooley’s second season with an embarrassing loss to Kentucky, which relegated the Vols to last in the SEC East Division and gave them their first back-to-back losing seasons in 100 years.
Hart stressed the difficulty of the respective rebuilding projects and the need to rediscover the “expectation of winning” for the three main men’s sports: football, basketball and baseball.
Below is the excerpt from the football portion of the interview.
TFP: How do you evaluate each of your athletic programs and teams, and do you evaluate football any differently because of its importance from an image, perception and financial standpoint?
DH: I think it is different. I think it’s different in the sense that other than our stated priorities of compliance and an atmosphere of compliance — and that’s a mandate, that’s not a request standard of coaches, that’s a mandate — and our priority on academics, which is not lip service in nature, it’s a very genuine priority.
Our next priority is to do everything we can collectively to help get football healthy and to have football in a position to succeed at the top of the SEC pyramid and nationally. That is a priority that is very real because of the reality of what football means to us both from a generation of enthusiasm on the part of our fans, the pride a successful program develops and fosters and then financially. Football is the engine to the financial train, so if football is struggling, then every car that that engine is pulling is negatively impacted in some way, shape or form ultimately.
Football and our ability to prioritize helping Derek Dooley as the head football coach and helping football in general, we’ve got to do that. We’ve got to see where the strengths and weaknesses are and how we can help turn those strengths and weaknesses and keep the strengths ongoing so that football can be a healthy product.
I’ve been blessed to be around programs where football was very, very healthy, at really three different institutions. I’ve seen the difference firsthand. I’ve been a part of watching the difference, and a football program that was growing and building, and then a football program that was highly successful. Everybody benefits from that: the fan base, the alumni, the university, the athletic department. Everybody benefits when that is the case.
TFP: Was this season acceptable in your eyes?
DH: No season where you lose more than you win is acceptable, because I think you do have to set standards, and I think the bar has to be high, because if it’s not, then complacency sets in. I think people need to know what the expectations are, and we’ll be very specific about expectations across the spectrum of our athletics program.
Obviously when you have a season that results in more losses than wins, then no, of course that’s not acceptable to anybody. It’s not acceptable to Derek. It’s not acceptable to anybody who touches the program: players, coaches, support staff. That’s very obvious.
TFP: You mentioned the high standards. What is the standard, in your mind, for what this football program should be at this time?
DH: I think first of all you’ve got to look at the obligations from the administration and not just the one-sided view of the world from a coaching perspective, because what I’ve always said to coaches is our obligation as administrators is to give you the support in every aspect of the program that we can. That can’t be lip service. We have to have resources dedicated to football and other sports, but you’re asking specifically now about football.
We have to have facilities that are top-notch, and it can’t be pockets of facilities because it always come back to recruiting. Are we doing our jobs administratively to maximize the chance for success in recruiting? We have to look at that. Where are players housed? Where do they eat? Where do they get academic support? Are those areas what they need to be and should be? Where do they practice? Where do they lift?
I know we’ve got a beautiful new facility that’ll address some of those components and address them in a first-class manner, but it may not throw a blanket over all of these facets of the program that I’m talking about. We’ve got to do an honest assessment of that and offer that total support. That support has to be maximized. When it is maximized, if we’re still struggling, then we have to do an honest assessment of why are we still struggling if we’re meeting those levels of support administratively.
Every program is different, and every coach who takes over a program is different. They’re never identical in nature. Some coaches have the luxury of inheriting a program that is very solid, on a solid foundation — lot of returning players, expectation of winning. We don’t have that right now. We don’t have a realistic expectation, confidence, that’s we’re going to take the field or the court and we’re going to win, that’s our expectation. That’s not there right now. That’s what Derek and Cuonzo [Martin, the basketball coach] are trying to build. It’s not an excuse, it’s just reality. We’ve had a tough road to hoe the last four or five years.
TFP: We live in a society, especially in college football, where it’s such a win-now mentality and attitude. How do you balance those pressures with being patient and giving, specifically Derek, enough time to build up the program?
DH: That’s a very good question, and I think there is a balance there. I was raised in an athletic family. My father was a football coach. I learned by osmosis about those pressures and how they affect people and players and coaches and families. I think you do have to be realistic because I think Derek and Cuonzo and, when we get to baseball, Dave [Serrano] — three of our newest coaches — they are facing rebuilding projects.
This is not a magic wand: Snap your fingers, it’s fixed and let’s move down the road. I think part of the success I’ve witnessed over the years being a part of those programs that have had a lot of success, they had a great foundation, they had resources, they built an expectation of success and confidence within those programs. That’s when things settled, and you begin to take steps up the ladder and find yourself on the same step year one, year two.
I think this: We’re not young anymore in football. We’re not young anymore. While it is realistic and it is factual to say that we have fielded an inexperienced team the last year or two, we’re not going to field inexperienced teams anymore. Those are the kinds of things you have to sit down, talk about and assess. I have thoroughly enjoyed Derek Dooley. I think Derek Dooley has the skill sets to be a highly successful coach.
I have enjoyed building that relationship. I have enjoyed sitting and visiting with Derek, not just in a postseason conversation, but as the season progressed. Again, I said this when I came, I thought when I came what Derek needed most was a positive advocate, who would also be a candid positive advocate, but an advocate and someone who did understand the realities of this particular environment. I do understand that, and now I’ve been here long enough to totally understand what is we’re trying to accomplish and what the impediments are to us getting there.
TFP: You said when you were introduced you were not going to be a “micromanager.” As it extends to football assistant coaches, how involved are you with that? Do you give Derek the autonomy to make those decisions?
DH: Every football coach I’ve ever worked with, we’ve had discussions at the end of the year when you talk about the season in candid terms and the good things and the indifferent things and the things that need improvement. I have never said to a coach and I never will, ‘Well, you need to get rid of Jimmy Stanton [associate AD present at the interview].’ That is micromanagement.
What I’ve always said to a coach is as you assess your staff, let me help you with that. Tell me what you need. In every case, a coach does ask my opinion and I offer it. Not just an off-the-cuff [response], but I offer what my eyes see. That’s for the coach to either filter out or absorb, because at the end of the day, the person at the top of pyramid will be judged on A to Z, and part of that is what kind of a staff has he or she built around them. Ultimately, that CEO is judged on that: What kind of people are around you? Do you have the right people around you? I’ve never micromanaged that.
I think coaches know when they get into this profession what they’re accountable for, and they’re accountable for a lot. They’re well-compensated, but they’re accountable for a lot. They answer to a lot of stakeholders, probably more than any other industry in America or profession in America. But they also understand that eventually they’re going to be judged on the ratio of success. That is tied to the people around you. People are your most important commodity.
At the end of the day, if we can’t reach all of those goals, that’s the part that they’re well aware that that’s playing into that. I think you have to trust coaches to know how to hire and who to hire and what responsibilities to dole out to various assistant coaches. I don’t micromanage that.
TFP: You sat right behind the bench during Tennessee’s basketball game at College of Charleston Wednesday night. What are you like when you watch Cuonzo Martin’s teams play or you watch Derek Dooley’s team play? Are you emotional and wear those on your sleeve, or are you pretty reserved when you watch your teams?
DH: I am competitive to a fault is the truthful answer. Knowing, though, that I was behind the bench, I worked hard to be as reserved as I possibly could. I hope that worked out; I’m not too sure. But I’m competitive, so that’s maybe nothing to be proud of in a sense, but that’s the way I’m wired. I also understand as we talked earlier, having played and coached and been in administration, I understand the complexity of building a program, and it’s hard. It’s hard.
These coaches, particularly the three new coaches I mentioned, Dave and Derek and Cuonzo, have huge jobs ahead of them. I know there are days, many days — and they don’t show it — where they have to be frustrated because it is [frustrating]. In some cases, when you have a difficult rebuilding job, and I mentioned earlier, we do have a lot of challenges here, but again I view them as opportunities.
There are days when I can turn the Titanic amid the iceberg easier than I can get this done. But you’ve got to work your way through those tough days and those rough waters because those waters will smooth out ultimately, and we’ll return to the foundation that those who have come before all the people we’re talking about and myself put into motion — a foundation of success, a foundation of wonderful, a foundation of the expectation of success. We’ve lost that temporarily right now, and we’ve got to build that.
We will hold people accountable and we will set the bar high in doing that. That’s the balance that you have to find. When you know what good looks like and have been a part of watching that development, then you have a better sense of all that. We’ll get back there. We’ve got people who can lead us back there, but right now, it’s tough sledding.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...